Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. Read more top stories from 2018 here.
Everybody’s got a sensitive side, but Nikki Beaudoin wasn’t afraid to show hers. She was the kind of kid who noticed when a classmate was feeling left out and went out of her way to include them. After she ran to embrace her emotional grandfather at a funeral, her father called her a tear-seeking missile.
That nurturing disposition made nursing a natural fit for Nikki, and she was excited to be accepted to Arizona State University’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation. Tragically, before she could enter the program, Nikki passed away from an extremely rare and aggressive form of cancer in June 2017.
Determined to turn tragedy to triumph, her family created the Nicole Brittany Beaudoin Nursing Scholarship to honor her memory and extend her legacy of kindness and compassion.
On a path to nursing
The daughter of accountants and younger than her three high-achieving siblings, Nikki didn’t always have such a clear idea of what she wanted to do with her life. Her eldest sister, Kristie, was an attorney and a graduate of Duke Law; her other sister, Katie, had been in the top 1 percent of her class; and her brother, Scott, was a starter on the state championship football team.
Unlike many kids, though, Nikki had no problem bringing her concerns to her parents and enjoyed talking things out with them. They told her she could be every bit as successful as her siblings, as long as she was willing to work hard. Nikki took the advice to heart, doubling down on her studies and eventually achieving a 4.0 GPA at ASU.
“She took a path that nobody else did,” said Jeff Beaudoin, Nikki’s father. “And I think that was a little bit of a challenge for her, but she was very determined.”
Nikki had always had a proclivity for helping others, and she began thinking about a career in medicine in high school. But it wasn’t until after she attended a conference the summer before her junior year at ASU that she was sure it was nursing she wanted to pursue.
“She felt that nurses had a real chance to connect with patients,” said Nikki’s mother, Barb Beaudoin. So she chose to gear her academic and professional trajectory toward becoming a nurse practitioner. “She felt like that was where she’d make the most impact.”
Video of Remembering ASU student Nikki Beaudoin
Video by Deanna Dent/ASU Now
A reason for the pain
Nikki began complaining of a sore neck and weakness in her right arm in late December 2016. The pain wasn’t excruciating, but she was having trouble shifting while driving, which worried her a bit. In January 2017, she saw a doctor about it and began physical therapy. When that didn’t work, a family friend suggested she get an MRI.
With a busy school and work schedule (Nikki was working as a scribe at St. Joseph's in Phoenix at the time), it was hard to get the procedure scheduled.
By February, her neck pain had gotten worse, and she had taken to walking around campus at night, sometimes two or three miles, just to ease it. Barb often drove from their family home in Moon Valley to accompany her on those walks.
When Nikki’s doctor reviewed her MRI, he suspected multiple sclerosis and started her on a round of steroid treatment. On Thursday, Feb. 23, when the treatment was complete, Nikki’s doctor asked her to raise her arms. She couldn’t.
Alarmed, the doctor referred Nikki to a neurologist to get another MRI that same day. She and her mother went immediately to the specialist and sat in the waiting room for hours, and she then endured another of the claustrophobic procedures.
The next few days were a blur. On that Monday, the head neurosurgeon at St. Joseph’s Hospital told Nikki and her parents that the MRI had revealed a large tumor on her spine and that they would need to perform emergency surgery.
“Once they figured out what was wrong, it happened like that,” Barb said, snapping her fingers. “It was figuring out what was wrong that took too long.”
The treatment begins
Nikki had surgery to remove the tumor Tuesday, Feb. 28, and spent the next 10 days in ICU rehab, where she had her 20th birthday party on March 5. She was finally released March 14 but had to move back home with her parents and relearn to walk because of the nerve damage caused by the tumor.
She began radiation and chemotherapy but didn’t let it stop her from maintaining stellar grades in her courses at ASU and keeping a positive attitude. She relied on friends to record lectures for her to listen to at home, and family members to accompany her to difficult doctor visits.
“We were really lucky that we had really supportive family and friends in our lives,” Barb said.
Kristie accompanied her sister to several doctor visits during that time and said that Nikki never complained. In fact, hardly anyone around Nikki, aside from close family members, even knew she was sick.
“A lot of people really just had no idea what was going on, which I think is a testament to how she handled it,” Kristie said.
Things continued that way — chemo, radiation, schoolwork, repeat — until early May, when Nikki complained of a terrible headache. She went to the emergency room, where she had yet another MRI done, but the scan showed nothing untoward. So Nikki went ahead with her anatomy and physiology final, which she aced, and then boarded a plane to the Bahamas with Kristie to make up for a vacation they'd had to postpone due to Nikki’s surgery.
Nikki and Kristie spent a week in the Bahamas, enjoying some well-deserved fun and relaxation, and returned Wednesday, May 10.
But by Sunday, May 14 — Mother’s Day — Nikki was back in the ER, having suddenly begun experiencing stroke-like symptoms.
This time, doctors suspected meningitis, because of her recent trip. They spent a week testing for the infection before an MRI and a spinal tap revealed the cancer had spread throughout her cerebrospinal fluid.
Aggressive action had to be taken immediately.
Shocking, and sudden
On Monday, May 22, Nikki underwent surgery to implant a port in her head that would allow for chemotherapy to be delivered directly to her brain. She was sent home the following day. On Wednesday, things once again took a turn for the worse; Nikki began acting bizarrely and her family called an ambulance to take her back to the hospital.
There, it was discovered that the cancer was causing the fluid in her brain to expand, and it had to be drained. A shunt was inserted into the port already in her head to attempt to balance out the pressure from the fluid.
“She was basically nonresponsive that entire time, until Saturday,” Kristie said.
It was the first time Nikki’s family asked doctors the dreaded question: Was she going to make it? The doctors told them she would never leave the hospital.
“So we were like, 'OK, well, we should probably take her home,' ” Barb said. “So we took her home on Saturday and she died two weeks later.”
Nikki’s family had known her condition was serious but not that it was terminal.
“I never Googled it because I didn’t want to know,” Barb said. “We just operated on the premise that she was going to get better.”
Throughout Nikki’s time in the hospital, she became a favorite of the nurses, always thanking them when they checked on her or performed a procedure. Three of them came to her funeral.
“One said she was the nicest patient that they had ever had,” Jeff said.
Keeping her spirit alive
Amidst their shock and grief, a family friend suggested setting up a scholarship in Nikki’s name. They coordinated with ASU’s College of Nursing and Health Innovation, and the Nicole Brittany Beaudoin Scholarship was established.
At Nikki’s service, in lieu of flowers, her family requested those who were able to do so make a donation to the scholarship fund or an organization called Stupid Cancer. While Nikki was undergoing treatment, she had expressed frustration about not having a support group for people her age, young adults diagnosed with cancer. Stupid Cancer attempts to address that issue.
From there, her family said, it just kind of blew up. Thousands of dollars flowed in to the scholarship fund and Stupid Cancer from everywhere in the country.
The Beaudoins were overwhelmed.
It seemed everybody Nikki had touched throughout her life wanted to contribute: friends from her church’s youth program, gymnastics and dance studios where she’d taken classes, sorority sisters at ASU, the fraternity of a boy she’d dated in high school.
One friend of Nikki’s in Oklahoma offered to print T-shirts with Nikki’s favorite phrase: “Be a nice human.” They went like hotcakes. Teachers from Nikki’s elementary school bought several and wear them every Wednesday.
The Beaudoins had to create a spreadsheet to keep track of it all, so that they could send thank-you notes and follow up with everyone. They knew Nikki was social, but they had no idea just how many people she’d had an impact on.
“She just had that heart,” Barb said. “Maybe because she was the youngest [of her siblings], maybe because she was Nikki, I don’t know. But she was always that way.”
Recently, the Beaudoins chose the first recipient of Nikki’s scholarship, Peyton Hickman, who will enter her second semester in the nursing program this fall.
Hickman took anatomy and physiology with Nikki last spring and was just as impressed by her grades as she was by Nikki’s kindhearted nature. Hickman was unaware at the time what Nikki was going through.
The Beaudoins said they chose Hickman because of an essay she wrote that they feel best represented Nikki’s outlook on life and nursing.
“I truly believe that I have a calling from God to be in the medical field,” Hickman said. “When I was younger, I thought that meant being a doctor, but when I started realizing the impact nurses had on patients … I realized it was a career that aligns closely with my core values and how I want to contribute to the world.”
Gone, but not lost
The Beaudoins' home in Moon Valley is overflowing with family photos, many of them featuring Nikki.
They tell the story of a girl who was bubbly and fun-loving. While she was back in the hospital awaiting meningitis testing, Nikki asked her parents to bring her a game called Speak Out, where players try to properly pronounce words with a plastic mouthpiece obstructing their speech. One photo shows her and her father Jeff with the mouthpieces in. They howled with laughter, Barb remembers.
Another photo shows Nikki on Lambeau Field, sneaking a selfie with Jordy Nelson, former wide receiver for the Green Bay Packers, in the background. A native of Wisconsin, Jeff’s love for the team rubbed off on Nikki, who would make special trips home to watch Packers games with her father while she was at ASU.
Nikki didn’t play favorites, though. Kristie recalls how she and her other siblings would tease each other about which of them Nikki liked best, since she got along with all of them so well. And she never missed an opportunity to make sure they knew how much she loved them.
“Nikki never left the house without saying, 'I love you,' ” Jeff said. “Never.”
Top photo: The Beaudoin family (from left to right: Katie, Jeff, Barb, Scott and Kristie) at their home in the Moon Valley area of north Phoenix. Jeff wears a T-shirt with Nikki’s favorite phrase: “Be a nice human.” Photo by Deanna Dent/ASU Now